Poverty and economic inequality are most often raised as the primary causes of terrorism, but the impact of modernization, globalization, democratization, and state legitimacy are also offered as explanations. As root causes of terrorism are applied in policy-making to counter-terrorism, it is important to consider the real evidence of each presumed reason. Looking first at poverty and socioeconomic disenfranchisement, the idea that these cause terrorism are widespread and almost as old as the first attempts to understand terrorism.
Poverty and Socioeconomic Status
The notion that poverty and disadvantaged socioeconomic status is a root cause of terrorism is mostly put forward by politicians and public figures. As one such an example, in 2002, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated: “I fully believe that the root cause of terrorism does come from situations where there is poverty, where there is ignorance, where people see no hope in their lives.” It is naturally assumed that poverty causes terrorism because a lack of opportunities to improve the quality of someone’s life could result in anger to others who are more privileged, or blaming the government for the lack of these opportunities. Therefore, the presence of grievances and frustration are key, in combination with the idea that terrorists are rational actors. Also, there are some terrorist organizations, mainly extreme left-wing groups, which claim to fight for the poor. But, is there really a meaningful link between poverty and terrorism?
Many terrorists are from upper and upper middle classes.
Studying the characteristics of individual terrorists, it is apparent that most terrorists are not poor, or poorer than the average in their communities. In fact, some terrorists are incredibly wealthy. Examples are Osama bin Laden, who came from a wealthy Saudi family. Another example is the so-called Christmas Day Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who in 2009 tried to blow up a plane heading for Detroit. He was from a well-to-do Nigerian family and earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University College London.
There are many other examples of terrorists from upper or upper middle class. Anders Breivik and Ulrike Meinhof are two other examples. A study of Jihadi terrorists in Europe by Edwin Bakker from the University of Leiden revealed similar results. Typically, they were migrants or children of migrants, and although of lower parts of society, they were not poorer than most others from similar backgrounds. The same holds for many terrorists in the less developed parts of the world who are generally not poorer than their fellow citizens.
Countries most affected by terrorism are rated upper and lower middle-income.
If we look at economic conditions at a macro scale, it is clear that the countries most affected by terrorism in the past three years, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, are some of the lesser developed in the world. However, these states (except Afghanistan) are rated upper and lower middle-income by the World Bank. The ten countries with the lowest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita do not even experience moderate levels of terrorism, perhaps at times with the exception of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia.
A study by James Piazza of terrorism and poor economic development at a macro level could also not find a meaningful link between terrorism and low per capita income, high levels of illiteracy, low life expectancy, and lack of employment opportunities. Another study by Alan Kreuger and Jitka Maleckova in 2003 that looked at terrorists on an individual level, similarly found that any link between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and quite weak. Instead, they concluded that terrorism is a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of frustration and indignity that have little to do with economics. Therefore, although there may be single cases where individuals turn to terrorism because of poverty, there is no evidence to support the notion that poverty is a root cause of terrorism.
Modernization, Democratization, and Failed States
In any situation of change, there are varying levels of resistance. Modernization has been an inevitable trend that continues to sweep worldwide but tends to polarize society into traditionalists and reformers, especially when it takes place rapidly and initiated by outside influence. In such cases, attempts to reform may have detrimental effects on social stability, widening the gaps between individual’s aspirations and expectations and their ability to control their own destiny.
External interference in a nation’s affairs legitimizes terrorism.
As a result of weakening the legitimacy of states, conflict is promoted, and the use of violence promulgated to achieve political goals. People may feel alienated and disoriented as their traditional cultural and religious communities disintegrate or assimilate with others. Modernization then, especially in the presence of strong external influences, can produce the social and psychological conditions by shifting people’s identities from National to ethnic and religious orientations, further weakening the nation-state and shared identity. It also legitimizes terrorism as a justified struggle against new values and external oppression.
Failed states are fertile grounds for terrorism.
Strongly connected to these concepts is an attempt to democratize institutions and governments and how the advent of these developments can increase public resentment and frustration when social agreement, will, values, and traditions are in conflict with the changes. There is often a feeling that religious and cultural practices and identity are undermined, which causes a yearning for the former state. Unfortunately, with external led democratization efforts often come political, social, and economic instability, the conditions of a failing state. By definition, failed or failing states are unable to fulfill the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign state, including (1) loss of control within its territory, (2) erosion of legitimate authority to make decisions, (3) inability to provide public services, and (4) inability to uphold law and order. Such a failed state is a fertile ground for terrorists as they are able to train and operate with impunity, and have large communities of frustrated and disenfranchised people to recruit from. In such countries, terrorist activities are often connected to organized crime to fund operations and share resources.